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The Lessons from France

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November 16, 2005 16:21 IST

The last time Paris came this close to anarchy was in the summer of 1968. Then noisy demonstrations by anarchists and Communists almost brought the government to its knees. Now, it is not just sound, but also fire.

Why is France rioting?

What began in a ghetto suburb of Paris spread, by the eleventh night, to 300 towns across France and to Belgium and Germany. After nearly two weeks of uncontrolled mayhem, and burning of about 6,000 cars, buses, as well as schools and houses, President Chirac revived a 1955 curfew law -- originally meant to fight war in colonial Algeria -- that allowed local authorities to impose curfews and a state of emergency. But peace has not yet returned and there are new incidents of rioting and arson every night.

The rioters have no specific demands excepting to be free of French police and a rage at French society and culture. It is as if they are impelled by this famous slogan from 1968:

On ne revendiquera rien, on ne demandera rien. On prendra, on occupera.
We will claim nothing, we will ask for nothing. We will take, we will occupy.

The Left has declared this as a simple consequence of high unemployment among the ghettoised youths -- the children and grandchildren of Islamic immigrants from North Africa -- in the doughnut suburbs of Paris, who face racial discrimination at the hands of employers and police. They blame the despair of the youth on economic deprivation and urban decay and the reduction of about 20 per cent in spending on social programmes. They blame the French State for failing to recognise the special needs of immigrant groups.

Uttam's Take: Is Paris Burning?

It is true that there is a widening gap between rich and poor. Whereas globalisation can be an engine that lifts countries out of poverty, as is happening currently in Asia, it also disrupts life and society. The globalised market place is leading to the formation of a ruling international aristocracy that is out of touch with the poor. It becomes easy to overlook the need to invest in education and cultural resources, especially in an atmosphere of war.

The Right sees this in terms of the battle between the civilisations of the secular West and Islam, pointing out that France's situation is not unique. European nations that have a more assimilative approach to its Islamic immigrants have had similar problems. Last year, the filmmaker Theo van Gogh was ritually murdered in multicultural Netherlands. This year, there were the 7/7 London bombings, and more recently there was a riot in Birmingham, England and another one in Denmark.

If it is a clash between rival civilisations, one can almost foresee the future. The post-industrial economies of the West require increasing number of immigrant workers -- mostly for menial jobs which native Europeans shun. At the same time, Europe's native populations are shrinking due to a declining birthrate which has fallen below the replenishment rate. The immigrant population will not only become a larger proportion over the next few decades, both through higher relative birth rates and further immigration, it may even become the majority in certain countries.

The European is mystified that in spite of its tradition of freedom of religious belief and expression, the immigrant groups have not assimilated into the secular fabric of its life. The reasons related to economic deprivation is not the entire story, when it is noticed that many figures in the jihadist organisations come from privileged families. Also, the immigrant has agency and the native population cannot always be blamed for unemployment and poverty, as is seen from the very different experiences of the Indian and the Pakistani communities in Britain, who started from the same situation fifty years ago.

The rioters, the bombers, and the terrorists see themselves as revolutionaries. They have a critique of the West; they speak of its decadence, the breakdown of the family, and its drug and sex culture. They are able to tap to the despair that has entered into the modern life as a consequence of the mechanisation of life, and alienation from society. They claim that a solution exists in the clarity and zeal of early (Salafi) Islam.

Irfan Husain, who is one of the most astute observers of the scene, writing in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn has this to say of what is driving the Islamic revolution: 'Apart from wishing to restore the Caliphate, they also want to reverse the expulsion of the Muslims from Spain, as well as overthrow the rule of non-Muslims from countries where the faithful once held sway. These include India, Bosnia and Chechnya. And of course, Jews must be thrown out of Israel. They also want to see the removal of all kings, generals and sundry rulers currently running Muslim countries. It goes without saying that all other Muslim sects with the exception of a Salafi interpretation of the faith have to be destroyed. In the long term, the whole world must be converted to Islam, and Sharia must be the law governing everybody.'

But they are not the only people who are speaking of a religious utopia as a cure for the ills of modern society. Mechanisation and family breakdown is also causing native Europeans and Americans to join other utopian religious communities some of which speak of an impending end of the world.

Subhash Kak